Printed on: December 24, 2012
By Bill Roberts
On the television screen, 27-year-old Maureen O'Hara was the modern mom determined that her young daughter know the truth about Santa Claus in the 1947 Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street."
A few feet away, 92-year-old Maureen O'Hara was settled in an easy chair in her Boise home, sipping tea and intently watching her younger self.
What was she thinking?
"How did I do that?" she said. "Why didn't I pay attention? Oh, I did a good job with that scene."
Still critiquing her performance after 65 years.
The Irish-born actress, with her signature red hair and brogue, was a force on the screen beginning in the late 1930s. She starred alongside some of motion pictures' best-known leading men: Charles Laughton, James Stewart, Anthony Quinn and, of course, John Wayne.
"What I would consider a classic Maureen O'Hara role is this strong, feisty, fiery heroine who goes through life on her own terms," Johnny Nicoletti, who helped O'Hara write her life story, "Tis Herself," told the Idaho Statesman. "Not any actress could stand toe-to-toe (with John Wayne) and own the other half of the screen."
O'Hara's feistiness hasn't dimmed with age, as she proved when she spent a recent afternoon talking about her life in Boise and her career.
She tells a story about how Laughton put her under personal contract in England in the 1930s and told her she should change her family name, FitzSimons, to O'Hara.
FitzSimons would look ugly spread across a marquee, he told her, and she agreed.
True, but it would be hard to miss.
"Well," she said, "I don't think Miss O'Hara was ever (easy) to miss."
From Ireland to Boise
O'Hara spent the past eight years in her native Ireland before moving to Boise to be near her only grandson, Conor FitzSimons, whom she raised for much of his life.
FitzSimons brought O'Hara back to the United States after she and family members expressed concern about the authority a person with power of attorney was exercising in her life.
"Maureen took steps to discharge the power of attorney," then fended off a second power of attorney and "took steps to be reunited with her family, especially her grandson," her New York lawyer, Ed Fickess, said.
O'Hara said she did not want to talk about the events in Ireland that led to her coming to Boise. But she is working with Nicoletti to write a book about her experience.
Her recently built Boise home is dotted with memorabilia from her more than a half-century in film: a poster from 1955's "The Magnificent Matador," co-starring Anthony Quinn, and a photo of John Wayne, with whom she made five movies.
When she talks about her new hometown, she sometimes uses both city and state: Boise, Idaho.
"Funny thing," she said, "when you are in the picture business, you don't learn a thing by the one name."
Scripts must tell the audience exactly what location you are talking about, she said. "People say, 'Oh, this is my town ... and they tell their neighbors you better go see that movie because we get credit for our town. The most important part of showing a movie is to please the public."
O'Hara grew up on the outskirts of Dublin ("Dirty Dublin," as she fondly calls it), where neighbors and nearby country folk always had animals. Cows and sheep along the roadside were a familiar sight.
She sees the same thing as she travels in the Treasure Valley. It reminds her of home, she said.
O'Hara rises late in the morning, usually about 10 a.m. She has breakfast, reads the newspaper and does about an hour of memory exercises, focusing on items such as the date and the name of the president of the United States, FitzSimons said.
"It's terrible when you're getting old and starting to forget," O'Hara said. "It will happen to you."
O'Hara the singer
Most days, O'Hara listens to one of the three albums she cut in her career. A favorite features Irish songs. Her voice shows the lineage of her family, many of whom were good singers.
"Our mother was a beautiful contralto," O'Hara said, adding that her sister Peggy was a soprano. "If she had not entered the convent, she would have become an opera singer."
O'Hara, a soprano, was not known for her singing voice in the movies.
"They never wanted me to be singing," she said. "They wanted me to be a stuntwoman and (do) fighting."
Indeed, she did many of her own stunts.
In the 1939 "Hunchback of Notre Dame," stuntman Dick Crockett, standing in for Laughton, hoisted her Esmeralda character high above his head in the cathedral's bell tower, high above a cobblestone street, said Nicoletti, her co-biographer.
O'Hara handled the stunt herself, although one buckled elbow could have meant disaster, he said.
Stuntman Crockett also taught O'Hara judo in the evenings while filming "Hunchback," Nicoletti said. Her sparring partner was a young Mickey Rooney.
As O'Hara reminisced, her great-grandchildren, BayLee and Everest, came in. She immediately focused on them for a moment and kept an eye on them as she talked. "Don't choke," she called out to Everest as he ran down the hall chomping on chips.
No doubts about 'Miracle'
As a short documentary about the making of "Miracle on 34th Street" flickered on the television, she said she was certain from the beginning that the movie would be a success, based on her own family experiences.
O'Hara and her five siblings knew all the fairy stories and pirate stories and Santa Claus tales, she said. They loved those stories, and O'Hara was sure the public would love the movie.
"I must say, it has a lot to do with the cast," she said.
John Payne, as the lawyer who must prove Santa is real, was a "very sweetheart of a guy," she said. "Kind, good, helpful; concerned for everybody. You couldn't meet a nicer person."
And the movie made money.
"Millions," O'Hara said. "What the hell do you think it's still doing? Honest to God. You couldn't help it with John Payne and Natalie Wood."
The Wayne magic
Her most famous collaboration was with John Wayne, an icon who dominates the frontier in Western movies. He also starred with O'Hara in "The Quiet Man," a film about Irish life that is dear to her heart.
"We were two tough, don't-give-in, keep-at-it (people) that enjoyed working together," she said. "We enjoyed working together because we knew how to be tough, but not hateful."
Wayne once called O'Hara the best guy he ever knew, to which she responded, "He was one of the best guys I ever knew."
In a scene in "The Quiet Man," which Nicoletti thinks defines the independence of O'Hara's screen persona, she slaps Wayne after he grabs her and kisses her.
What many people don't know is that she broke her hand when she hit him, FitzSimons said.
The Wayne/O'Hara connection remains vibrant three decades after Wayne's death.
O'Hara will travel to Wayne's hometown of Winterset, Iowa, in May to attend the actor's 106th birthday celebration. The gathering also will pay tribute to O'Hara by showing movies the two made together.
"It will be as good as having John Wayne here," said Brian Downes, a former newspaper reporter and director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum.
The afternoon at O'Hara's Idaho home ended as it began, with thoughts of Charles Laughton, who once remarked on the vitality of O'Hara's black cherry-colored eyes. As she played Esmeralda to Laughton's distorted Quasimodo, she was up against an acting master.
How did that feel?
"When you worked with Charles Laughton, you thought you were pretty damn good, too," she said. "You did the best you could damn well do and hoped it was better than what he did. Then you'd steal the scene."